Cottage Grove

Recalling the Indian Wedding Tree

Photo / Teri McCoy – After the fall, with grandsons Joe and Jacob for scale.

Last week while on a 10-mile hike on the Row River Trail, one of our scouts said, “We are getting close to where the Indian Wedding Tree used to be.”

That reminded me of hearing that it had fallen down some years back – Sunday, June 17, 2018 to be exact. 

We started looking for the spot, one he was familiar with as his grandmother had lived on the property where it stood. “You can see where it hit the trail and part of it is still standing.”

Sure enough, there were still some dents in the bike trail blacktop from when high winds brought down the curtain for this local celebrity. Conservative estimates put the age of this huge fir tree at 250 years old. From what remains of the mighty trunk it is an easy stretch to tack on a few more decades to that total.

But it was not just the size of the tree that made it famous. It was also distinctive in shape and its limb structure was as arresting as its massive size. Together it was eye-catching and inspiring. Being just off the tracks of the Oregon Pacific & Eastern’s “The Goose” excursion train didn’t hurt the tree’s reputation either. It was hard to miss from the train windows and guides on the train shared a local legend of the origins of its unusual shape.

Debra Monsive’s father, Keith Stiff, caught the railroading bug growing up in Lorane and working on the railroad while still in high school. He was also a part of the survey crew that in 1945-46, laid out the new route the train had to take when the Dorena Dam was built, eventually flooding the original route and townsite. Later working in the Bohemia mines he picked up a lot of the local history of the Row River Valley.

His love of steam trains and history set Stiff up for the perfect summer gig, Narrator/Tour Guide on the Goose. Sharing his knowledge with visitors from near and far while riding the magic carpet of steel was a job made for him. “And it sure is a lot of fun,” he was quoted as saying with a grin in a 1987 Bohemia Quarterly publication. 

Photo / Teri McCoy – The Indian Wedding Tree, before the fall 2009.

Fruit often falls not far from the tree and in the case of Stiff’s daughter, Debra Monsive, love of local history has her at the helm of the Cottage Grove Genealogy Society and heavily involved in our other Partners in History. She shared her Dad’s narration notes and here is what he would tell the tourists when they approached the Wedding Tree: “Just past Layng Hill, on the right, is the Indian Wedding Tree. This is a large tree with branches that were broken many years ago by an Indian couple prior to their marriage with the belief that if the tree survived, then their marriage would also survive. Obviously, the tree did survive, but we have no idea what happened to their marriage. It is a large fir tree whose branches jut down toward the ground, form a “V” and go straight back up. It is surrounded by white posts with a chain around it so you can’t miss it on the right of the train just past Layng Hill. After the Wedding Tree, we quickly cross the Row River.”

The origins of this local legend of the tree being broken or split while still a sapling to serve as a prophetic predictor of marital bliss by an unknown Native Kalapuya couple are hazy. Legends often are. Someone probably said something either as a speculation or repeated something told by an early settler and it sticks, is retold, and grows.  

Another local historian weighed in on the legend. Dove McGee Trask, who owned the property the tree sat on at the time, was featured in the only documentation I could find in the files, a local paper article from Aug. 3, 1978. She had grown up hearing from her mother that the tree was the result of a Kalapuya custom. “According to the legend, when a Kalapuya couple was about to be married, they stood beneath a small evergreen, which was split down the middle. If the tree healed and grew, it foretold well for the marriage, the legend says.”

Trask at the time of the article had begun to have serious doubts about the veracity of the tale. She had observed that since the tree was growing on a slope, and began to think that perhaps the tree had gotten its peculiar shape by trying to grow toward the light. 

Other local people quoted in the article, Jerry Running Foxe, who was part Coquille, and his mother Beverly Ward, who grew up among the Siletz, also had their doubts, but admitted they didn’t know a lot about Kalapuya customs and that different tribes have different ways. An anthropologist and a folklore expert at the University of Oregon that Ward spoke with reported that while they didn’t know as much as they would like to about the Kalapuya, neither had ever heard of this marriage tree ritual.

Legends and origin stories aside, the article did a wonderful job of describing the now-gone giant. “The trunk is about 14 feet around and rises straight from the forest floor until its crown is out of view. One of its trunks, that is, rises straight. Another trunk, about 8 feet around, first takes a slight detour. It leaves the main stem about four feet off the ground and juts out horizontally for about 20 feet before curving upward, where it splits into two more stems, which then rise out of sight with the main crown. Two other smaller versions of the big horizontal “trunk” also leave the main stem about four feet off the ground before turning upward. “They’re like 60-year-old trees themselves where they go out of the trunk,” Mrs. Trask said.

One curious aspect about the article was that it reported Trask had given permission to have the Wedding Tree logged along with others on her property. It was a hard decision she said but felt that thinning some trees would be healthy for the rest of the stand. Obviously that didn’t happen so in the end the legendary tree got a reprieve and it stood for just two months shy of exactly 40 years from when the article was printed, and the winds blew her down.

 There was a close-up photo of the odd trunk in the newspaper article but other than that I could not find a single picture of the whole Wedding Tree before the fall. So I sent up some smoke signals on social media. 

 Thankfully, Cottage Grove born-and-raised native Teri McCoy came through with some pictures which she says don’t fully capture the grace and grandeur of the tree as she experienced it up close and personal but they are the best we could get by the press deadline.

She first learned of the tree’s existence from an old friend, logger Don Allen. He would faithfully point it out every time that they would be driving by on Row River Road. From the road only the top of the tree was visible, which McCoy said “looked pretty scraggly.”

“I used to wonder why Don loved it so much. Then he and his wife Joyce and I drove up the gravel road on the other side of the river and parked. We walked over the bike trail and there she was, OMG! There was no fence back then so you could walk up to it but you really didn’t need to. Huge, massive trunk with huge trees growing straight up from its outstretched lower limbs. You could see where, somewhere in the past a branch had grown from one tree on a limb to anchor itself to the main trunk. It was amazing! Don told me she was called, ‘The Marrying Tree.’ He was a gifted storyteller as well as a teller of tall tales.”

When Don went to cruise timber in the sky, his memorial was held at the Dorena Grange nearby where his beloved tree had also fallen, a fitting touch was that a picture of the remaining pillar was the cover of his memorial program.

Another commenter stated that, “We lived very near the tree for 42 years. I saw it change a lot over the years, at first it looked like a menorah, but over the years most of the big branches broke off, a shame.”

 When especially beloved trees die or fall, it is of course sad. All the more reason to plant more. Even if we will not be here to enjoy them in their full glory or to mourn over their fallen bodies we can start the process, maybe even one of the trees you plant could become the legend of the future. Time will tell. Oh, and take plenty of pictures while those trees are here!

Just a reminder, this Saturday head by Coiner Park, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for free trees. There is a good selection of 13 different species, over 900 up for grabs. Plant a future legend.

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